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String Quartets nos. 3 & 4.

New Hellenic String Quartet
BIS CD 1074 [57' 48"]
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In Nikos Skalkottas' massive fourth string quartet (1940), this CD has some of the most dense and eventful music you are ever likely to encounter. It is a tough nut to crack, having a quality of superabundant energy and inventiveness which is, by turns, invigorating, exhilarating and finally exhausting.

The third quartet (1935) is far easier to respond to. I have known it for many years through a treasured an EMI-Greece box of LPs, which has a good range of Skalkottas' chamber music, and enough of the piano music to arouse the keenest interest. I played then the compact Variations, and have struggled too with some of the innovative, accessible and important 32 Pieces, which were even broadcast in their entirety by Radio3 (I hope particularly that these are scheduled for issue on BIS?).

Those LPs had too the lavish documentation with numerous illustrations, something which was fairly common then, but is now a thing of the past. It is worth looking out for, though long unavailable - (14C 163-70981/2/3/4). Some of the playing is a bit rough & ready, but not sufficiently so to dampen enthusiasm, which has remained with me until BIS has caught up with this important and life enhancing music half a century on.

I was therefore disappointed not to have learned of the recent visit to London of the New Hellenic Quartet until after it had taken place. They had come especially to perform the two works featured on this CD, the last two of Skalkottas's four string quartets (the score of the second is missing). Richard Whitehouse attended the Hellenic Centre for Seen&Heard and I quote from his review:-

- - - Some composers are so unfashionable that even the centenary of their birth warrants little or no coverage. Were there any UK performances in 1996 for Roger Sessions's 100th? If the 50th anniversary of Nikos Skalkottas's death might seem equally worth overlooking, remember the significance his music attracted back in the 1950s and '60s, when Hans Keller lauded him as one of the five most significant composers this century - - - since when his music has fallen into the 'respected but unheard' category, with little available on disc until the Swedish company BIS began their excellent series of recordings last year - - - - - dating from 1935, the Third Quartet marks the onset of Skalkottas's maturity; the serial method of Schoenberg is treated flexibly and creatively, along with a rhythmic dynamism which, stemming from Stravinsky and even Bartók, has become equally personal. The three movements play for 20 minutes, beginning with an Allegro moderato where the distinction between harmonic and thematic presentation of the material is integral to the music's dynamism. The Andante has a heightened lyricism redolent of Berg's Lyric Suite, while the closing Allegro vivace is relaxed to the extent that its underlying ländler rhythm offsets the metamorphoses of the main rondo theme.

The Fourth Quartet of 1940 takes this musical idiom to its relative extreme. Playing for 38 minutes, it requires a stamina comparable to the late quartets of Beethoven and the first quartet of Schoenberg: sobering to think that it was completed in little more than four weeks, and is only one of a whole series of large-scale works that Skalkottas worked on during the remainder of his short life. The opening Allegro molto vivace achieves its expansiveness through dynamic, subtle cross-referencing of themes, rather than by its actual length, while the Andante molto espressivo has a musical and emotional breadth which more than sustains the six diverse variations on its opening melody. The Presto must be unequalled in the literature for sheer velocity, with the lilting trio making an almost surreal contrast. If the Allegro guisto finale seems not quite to wrap up the piece conclusively, this may be because of its brevity and swiftness of thought. Perhaps it would be more convincing played attacca after the scherzo? At any rate, the New Hellenics powered through to the final bars with absolute conviction, and to deservedly prolonged applause.

The New Hellenic Quartet's recording of Skalkottas's string quartet music is due for release on BIS next spring. For now, Georgios Demertzis's account of the violin concerto, and his just-released disc of the chamber music for violin (BIS-CD-1024) are mandatory listening for anyone willing to give this extraordinarily original and engrossing composer the attention his music so richly deserves.

This CD does not disappoint. The players, led by Georgios Demertzis, obviously have this, at times severe, dodecaphonic music in their bones and are undaunted by its complexity. It is however more austere than some of the other music released by BIS, so I would not recommend it as your first Skalkottas purchase - others have been reviewed on MotW (see below). The September 1999 recording of the two quartets made in Athens is entirely satisfactory and the background information includes a detailed analysis of Skalkottas's music for string quartet, as well as notes about his strange life and an introduction to his unique style.

see also

SKALKOTTAS The Maiden and Death; Piano Concerto No 1 (Geoffrey Douglas Madge) and Ouverture Concertante Iceland Symphony Orchestra, cond. Nikos Christodoulou. BIS CD 1014

SKALKOTTAS Violin Music (solo sonata; four sonatinas; seven pieces) Georgios Demertzis (violin) Maria Asteriadou (piano) BIS 1024


Peter Grahame Woolf



Peter Grahame Woolf

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